Mediterranean journeys in hope

Why Idomeni has a fairness problem to solve

The concept of distributive justice used when handing out food does little for fairness if the camp lacks the minimal conditions for a life with decency.

Gabriel Bonis
29 April 2016

Idomeni camp. Photograph by author, all rights reserved.

What made him easily identifiable to me was a small cut on his left cheek, nearby his lips. The wound had a ‘C’ shape and it was covered in what seemed to be dried blood. He looked younger than ten years old and was waiting in line to get a portion of food in the transit centre of Idomeni – now turned into a dreadful refugee camp – at the Greek border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It was lunchtime and I handed him a plastic bag with some cooked pasta, a piece of bread, and an orange.

“Only one bag per person” is the standard response to everyone who asks for an extra portion of food in the queue. The per capita criterion is quite common in the distribution of humanitarian relief handouts. Donors usually base their norms of distributive justice on this rule, as it supposedly ‘guarantees’ the equitable distribution of goods amongst the recipients, as Barbara Harrell-Bond argued in Human Rights Quarterly back in 2002.

It matters little if one gets more portions than another if both do not receive enough.

As he looked so starving, I turned a blind eye when a few minutes later the boy returned for a second bag. But when he showed up once more, he left empty handed. At that moment, objectively thinking, denying a starving child a third meal seemed sadly fair. Here is why: 1) there were nearly 14,000 persons stranded in Idomeni; 2) only about 3,000 portions of food had been prepared in the volunteer-run kitchen that day; 3) we were clearly short of food.

Scarce resources are not uncommon in humanitarian relief operations. Thus, would it not be more honest to explain this reality to refugees? Such an approach would involve a considerable level of effort in terms of language skills and organisation by those distributing the goods, but it is certainly more genuine than targeting individuals by any identifiable physical characteristics.

Fairness as a fig leaf for moral failure


Receiving their daily ration at Idomeni camp. Photograph by author, all rights reserved.

While the per capita criterion might create the idea of a ‘fair distribution’ of goods by levelling the heterogeneous refugee population (age, education, gender, etc.) – theoretically giving all the same opportunities – one can also argue that fairness is subjective to personal moral concepts, as well as influenced by the power asymmetry between recipients and givers. When the givers can decide who is deserving of the gift – the same gift that could be the means of survival of the recipient – this power can lead to an unfair process. As Harrell-Bond argues, such power “is highly seductive and brings out the best or the worst in us”.

If they are due one portion of food, there has got to be 14,000 portions for the concept of fairness to make sense.

Moreover, one can also analyse the application of the concept of fairness in a broader context. How can we truly worry about fairness in food handouts in a refugee camp that reproduces the worst inequalities of our society? Idomeni has become a favela in Europe, where thousands of people live in camping tents on moody fields, with no heating (trash is burned at night to avoid hypothermia), and where the sanitary conditions are appalling.

The European Union regulates the minimum standards of the reception centres for refugees. Thus, a refugee camp in a member state should, at least, offer decent living conditions. At minimum, these would include running and potable water, heating, proper accommodation, and enough food. When the basic needs of refugees have been denied to them, enforcing the concept of distributive justice on what little there is in the name of fairness seems pointless. Nothing in the camp is ‘fair’.

When nobody gets enough


Tents run down both sides of the tracks at Idomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border. Photograph by author, all rights reserved.

Furthermore, the per capita criterion ignores an important point highlighted by Harrell-Bond, Eftihia Voutira and Marl Leopold: it does not address the question of whether everyone gets enough. And this seems to be more important. It matters little if one gets more portions than another if both do not receive enough to meet their basic needs. Besides that, one can argue that if there are not enough meals available for all, the distributive justice criterion is bogus. When 3,000 portions go to 14,000 persons the vast majority leave empty handed – the logic of per capita distribution is superseded by the hard reality of first come first serve. Thus, there is not equality in opportunities anyway.

As the three anthropologists above argue, if “refugees only ate the food given to them, they would die”. This is why they look for other ways to meet their needs and supplement what is given to them. For instance, some refugees will ‘voluntarily’ help in the distribution of handouts in Idomeni so they can justifiably argue for their ‘right’ to receive more food from donors – or just to access storage areas where they can take goods for themselves, family and friends.

What is fairness then? Theoretically, the concept is closely related to various other moral concepts, including equality, impartiality, and justice. George Klosko of the University of Virginia describes it roughly as people receiving the same treatment by others or institutions. When there is a process, such as the distribution of goods, a fair procedure applies the rules similarly to all cases, with reasonable exceptions. In this sense, the philosopher Brad Hooker says that fairness consists in people getting what they are due. If they are due one portion of food, there has got to be 14,000 portions for the concept to make sense.

The constitution of fairness depends on rules decided by those who apply the criterion. In this sense, fairness can vary from one person to another: an objective person may find it morally legitimate to deny a third portion of food to a staving child for the common good, while a human rights-focused individual could see this as morally wrong. As the philosopher Lionel K. McPherson points out, there are a few concepts of fairness – one of the most prominent being John Rawls’ idea of “justice as fairness”. However, McPherson argues, in real life the requirements of fairness become more difficult to determine because there is no "freestanding conception of fairness that can serve as our common ground”.

The critical point of the debate is how to get everyone enough. For many months, international NGOs and local groups of volunteers have provided support for the refugees in Idomeni almost entirely alone, just as in other parts of Greece. But there is only so much they can do. The Greek government and the EU must support them materially and logistically, which has not been happening.

When Idomeni was turned into a refugee camp and the donations of food gathered by volunteers were no longer enough to feed the refugees, Médecins Sans Frontières financially helped volunteers to increase meal production. If the fairness problem is to be solved in the camp, the EU and the Greek government must also help to guarantee that refugees get enough to meet their basic needs.

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